Hunger in India: The Crisis Worsens



13 November 2009. Despite its economic successes, India leads the world in hunger. According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, which is calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India has over 200 million people who are food insecure - in other words, who are not sure where their next meal is coming from.

To put that into context, that is the same as the entire populations of Germany, France and the UK all going hungry. As we reported on the 23 October, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation believes that over 1 billion people will go hungry in 2009. 100 million (10%) of those have been made newly hungry by the Financial Crisis. By that grim calculus, India's hungry have grown to at least 220 million, with India providing 20% of the world count.

India is the second most populated country in the world. With a population of 1.173m, the hungry make up 19% or one in five of the country. The percentage is probably better than it was fifty years ago, but the absolute number is growing.

Compare this to China, which has a larger population (1.334m) and which 50 years ago was arguably poorer. It has managed to bring over 500 people out of poverty, its hungry count is today less than 100 million, and that number is shrinking every year.

What ails India? Endemic problems such as corruption, poor infrastructure and a lack of access to funds continue to be a problem. The Congress government has been put a strong focus on this area, for example allocating funds to go directly to villages rather than through often corrupt local officials. It was one of the reasons that Congress won the elections with such a show of force - but more clearly needs to be done.

2009 has been a particularly disasterous year for Indian farmers. First there was there was the monsoon failure. It is estimated that this knocked out 40% - 50% of the Kharif monsoon harvest. Then at the end of the monsoon season, which is normally dry, there were torrential downpours. Although this solved the water crisis, it made the food crisis worse, as much of the crops that made it through the drought were destroyed. An excellent video report from Haryana, by, explains the devastating effect this is having on local farmers, who can't even feed themselves, let alone feeding India.

There is another angle to this problem, however, and this is key to understanding how the hungry in India can be eventually fed, and how this can help dent the world food problem. That key is technology.

The FAO believes that the supply of available arable land is running out. At the same time, farmers are either getting diminishing returns from their current land, or they are having to put ever more inputs to get the same yield.

Much of the progress in feed the world since the 1970's has been thanks to the Green Revolution, pioneered by Norman Borlaug, who helped the Mexicans to vastly increase their crop yields. He then took this technology worldwide, with fantastic results in India and many other nations. Sadly, Mr Borlaug passed on the 12 September 2009.

The Green Revolution relied on high-yielding crop varieties, together with fertilizers and other methods to more than double crop yields.

Since that great productivity burst, however, technology has stagnated. There is a great deal that newer technology can offer. New crop varieties are being developed that require considerably less water and nitrogen. Lasers can be used to flatten fields, and sprinklers can greatly reduce water wastage.

Governments in India and elsewhere need to focus on a second Green Revolution to create another quantum leap in productivity. We need to get back on the path of hunger reduction that we were - until recently - so successfully treading. Otherwise the food riots of last year and doubling of potato and lentil prices this year will seem like - pardon the pun - chicken feed.

Dwayne Ramakrishnan